Practice Development Counsel

Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

President & Founder

212 593-1549

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The Un-Peter Principle

June, 2005

In his provocative column on the New York Times Op-Ed page titled “The Adams Principle” (June 21, 2005), John Tierney made the argument that workers should emulate John Quincy Adams, who successfully took a “demotion” to become an accomplished congressman at age 63 after his presidency. “Most workers could keep going longer if they and employers reconsidered the old assumption about a career trajectory,” wrote Tierney. He also said “We need to rethink the old assumption that employees keep getting raises through their careers.” [And he might have mentioned the newer assumption that owners/partners and top executives must increase their compensation every year even when the firm has a down year – but I digress.]

While many people whose work is predominantly physical labor may feel a need or desire to stop working at all at age 60 or 65, professionals and other knowledge workers may want to keep doing productive work beyond the typical “retirement” age for the intellectual stimulation if not the economic need, or both. And employers need their judgment, experience, maturity, and work ethic. We are just beginning to see this play out as the baby boomers prepare to leave their long-time careers.

There is a great opportunity here! – but not necessarily just by keeping people in place. In fact, there are some strong arguments against letting senior professionals and executives hang around as long as they want or until they “let go” of their past.


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  • Younger people need a place to move up into – or they will be frustrated and leave.
  • Compensation systems often provide a disincentive for keeping older, more experienced people.
  • Many senior professionals and executives would like a change of pace after a long career and the challenge of new types of work in accord with their values and what they would like to achieve at this stage of their life. Sometimes they need a nudge and guidance on how to seize the opportunity to venture beyond the familiar.

Referring to the shredded historical “economic contract” between employer and employee (I'm generalizing here, including partners in professional firms in the term “employees” with no reference to now questioned definitions of “partnership”), each side now feels free to abandon the other, but they resent when it happens to them. The lingering expectations of what they are “owed” can get in the way of moving on to more fulfilling opportunities elsewhere, not necessarily in a comparable position. So can an employer's fear that even if the individual is willing to take a cut in pay and status – often accompanied by the benefit of increased personal time – they will be frustrated and find the new position “beneath them.”

So what we see here are issues of attitudes, making (possibly erroneous) assumptions about other people's choices, and consequently not offering opportunities that need to be filled.. There are assumptions that people won't be eager to try something new, possibly something they had never had time for given high-pressured careers. They may have been deterred by the desire to maximize their financial compensation either as a scorecard that measured their worth in other people's eyes or a real financial need. Perhaps those circumstances have changed and it is time for them to define success in their own terms.

John Quincy Adams continued to serve as a congressman until his death at age 80, which was quite an advanced age for those times. (Given that our modern day presidents are younger in physical fitness than ever before, we see them go on to do things that would be considered a “demotion” from being president.) Far from “over the hill,” Adams earned a better reputation for his accomplishments as a congressman than as president. He did what he wanted to do.

My point is that we will witness a serious waste of talent and personal unhappiness at a time when organizations of all kinds need that talent and will have fewer young people to employ, given demographics, unless there is a change of attitude on the part of both employers and individuals. Both have to recognize that there are exciting, positive opportunities just over the horizon. There are important functions not being performed, particularly in professional development, community relations, and other people-oriented areas, that senior people can transition into either at their current organization or somewhere else. Tierney's column didn't deal with issues of identity and self-worth, which probably were not Adams' problems, but they are big ones for many successful people. Some of them need guidance about where to look for opportunities that are a good fit beyond the obvious. To achieve a good fit culturally, not just in terms of skills, work needs to be done to change preconceived notions so that younger colleagues respect the altered status of their seniors. It's about engaging the values, fresh ideas and energy of the leading edge of the baby boomers, for example, to reinvent themselves and continue to make significant contributions.

Personally, I expect to still be dancing outrageously at 91 (or beyond), and to continue to expand my horizons professionally indefinitely. Part of my mission is to spread that attitude. Who wants to play?

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© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2005. All rights reserved.